Benchmark Ethics: Sound Ethics in a Chaotic World

Like many others, I find myself a bit numb these days, in a way I have never experienced before in my life. I am still appalled by the events of September 11 (and since). I feel some “terrorism fatigue” because of the unrelenting bad news. I yearn for deep reflection, wisdom, and discernment, and am profoundly troubled by the shortsightedness, ignorance, and impatience of some of the voices dominating the conversations.

Ethics seems like a luxury item when survival itself appears to be at stake. I mean not only the survival of civilization against barbarism, the grand issue of the day, but the survival of companies and jobs. The body blows of the meltdown have been followed by the knockdown punches of the terrorists.

And yet … if we remember that “ethics” is just a summary term for pursuing what is good and doing what is right, it is no luxury at all. We don’t want “evil doers,” far or near, to win — either by crushing us into submission or by conforming us to their evil ways. So we must pursue the ethical good and the right, now more than ever.

At the IBTE we say we want our ethics to be “sound.” “Sound” means “solid,” “reliable,” and “healthy.” The litmus test of such ethical soundness is not in our judgments of flagrant evils. Only the most ethically dull or corrupt is not morally outraged at a great evil like September 11. And only the hardest of heart is not deeply grateful and approving of a great good such as the heroism of so many right after that attack occurred. But what about our moral judgments in the complexities and ambiguities of daily life and work?

Three false roads have often beckoned to ethical seekers here. One is the group-think that says that “my country” (right or wrong!), “my race,” “my sex,” “my business,”or even “my religion,” is the locus of goodness and rightness. Another is the naïve belief that the “market” operates by some inexorable law to produce the morally right result every time. And finally, the popular contemporary approach — “I’ve got my values and you’ve got yours” — is no help either. Group loyalty, market forces, and self-interest all have their places in life but they are not a sufficient foundation for a sound ethics.

So what makes an ethic “sound”? I can’t really prove anything in my small column space (maybe not in a large space either — “proof” in these matters is elusive) but here is a proposed outline for a sound ethics:

First, a sound ethic is people-oriented, not rule-oriented. Ethical rules serve people; people do not serve rules. Drawing people together to reflect on our common (and also our distinctive) human needs and purposes is where we can begin to build a moral consensus to guide our relationships and activities. We must draw together.

Second, a sound ethic is, above all, about protecting people from harm. That is the great, overarching moral principle as understood in the ancient Hippocratic Oath and much of the ethical tradition. We are becoming ethical whenever we ask if our actions, products, policies, etc., are truly good for people (not just economically profitable) and right (not just technically possible). We are becoming ethical when we make sure to protect, as well as we can anyway, the weak, the distant, and the voiceless. Which business, political, and religious responses to today’s events will best protect people from harm? Those are the ethical responses.

Third, a sound ethics must pay at least as much attention to individual character and corporate culture (in other words “what we are”) as to ethics codes and thorny dilemmas (“what we do”) — at least as much to the larger mission which drives us and defines us as to the crises requiring our damage control. It is our character, culture, and mission (not our codes, rules, and decision-making methods) that have the greatest long-term impact on the actual shape and quality of our ethical life. How can we improve the climate of attitude and opinion, the habits and values of individuals and groups? That is a pivotal question today.

Fourth, a sound ethics must respect, and be connectable with, the basic philosophy of life or religious faith of the people trying to be guided by it. This is not saying that everyone must embrace a certain religion or philosophy to be ethical; but people who do embrace a philosophy or religion (multitudes around the world actually) will never be able to accept an ethics unless it connects with their fundamental life orientation. Rarely in modern history has this point been clearer.

Disagreement at this fundamental level is sure to happen of course. But will we persist in searching for connections not just to our own but to others’ deepest commitments and work with them in a respectful way? If we do not, there will be no chance of reaching agreement on what is good and right. We can’t afford to give up.

David W. Gill was co-founder of IBTE and author of Benchmark Ethics, a regular article in the first 32 issues of Ethix. After eight years of writing, speaking, teaching, and consulting in the Bay Area of California, he joined the faculty of Gordon-Conwell Theological Center (South Hampton, Mass.) in 2010, where he is also Director of the Mockler Center for Faith and Ethics in the Workplace.